YA – Where We Are

McGhee, Alison. Where We Are. Atheneum/A Caitlyn Dlougy Book, 2020. 978-1-534-44612-0. $18.99. Grades 7-10.

Micah and Sesame had a plan. If Micah and his parents mysteriously disappeared from their home in present-day, downtown Minneapolis, Micah would text Sesame and she would find him. When Deacon comes to escort the Stone family to the South Compound, he confiscates their cell phones so Micah leaves a cryptic note on the wipe-off board on the refrigerator. The Stones have joined a cult that scorns all worldly things—even pencils—and cower and obey the harsh and unreasonable mandates of one man they call the Prophet. Not Micah. He resists and accumulates so many infractions for what the cold and domineering Prophet deems insubordination that the young man barely exists in solitary confinement. Though free, Sesame Gray lives a secret life. After her mother dies (she calls her grandmother because the woman was older when she adopted Sesame), she concocts stories so that neither her friends nor her solicitous neighbors suspect she is living alone in an abandoned garage. Throughout the book, Sesame reflects on both her grandmother’s goodness and also her habit of keeping them isolated and self-sufficient. That behavior serves Sesame well in her current situation, but her experience relying on others to help in the search for Micah brings a new realization that every person needs to depend on someone. High school seniors and sweethearts, Micah and Sesame narrate this curious story in alternating chapters: faithful Sesame on the outside, remains single-mindedly determined to find her lost boyfriend; resilient Micah, imprisoned in a basement laundry and wasting away, continues to leave clues, sure Sesame will find him. In the hands of a different writer, this book about cults and loss would be a toss off. Author Alison McGhee’s writing pulls the reader along this strange tale and makes us care about these two sensitive and insightful characters. Still, the subject manner is very particular and though there is the element of romance, their love is played out through devotion rather than a relationship, leaving the book with limited appeal. It is unclear what ethnicity the characters are (the cult and its members seem white); two neighbor couples are gay; it all is seamless.

THOUGHTS:  I have read other books by Ghee (Maybe a Fox), and admired her unique plot selections. A hide-and-seek love story centered around a cult but not really about the cult is unique, but not so interesting. The fact that present-day Minneapolis is the focal point of so much foment, violence, and pain, and Ghee picks that city to be the setting for a cult/kidnap/romance seems to me an odd-and avoidable-choice. The dust jacket states Ms. McGhee splits her residence between Minneapolis and another place, so perhaps the setting doesn’t matter. Though I couldn’t, I thought these factors promoted this book: subtle but solid theme, good writing, clever idea of creative Sesame to leave poems boxes around town, appealing characters. Like McGhee’s other books, this one fits only a narrow audience. 

Realistic Fiction Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – The Voting Booth

Colbert, Brandy. The Voting Booth. Hyperion, 2020. 978-1-368-05329-7. $18.99. 293 p. Grades 9 and up.

It’s election day, and Marva has been waiting for this day for her entire life. A passionate advocate for equality and democracy, her first election day is like a holiday for this high school senior in the running for valedictorian at her private prep school. Duke is less enthusiastic but is still getting up early to vote in his first election, too. His family’s passion about politics – particularly his activist brother’s who died two years ago – deems he participate in the democratic process. He knows it’s important to vote, but he’s more excited about his band’s first paying gig tonight. He learned to play drums as therapy after his brother’s death, but it turns out he’s really good at it. Marva is – of course – first in line at her polling place and casts her vote without issue. Just when she thinks she can head off to school and then relax on the couch tonight watching election results with her social media-famous cat Selma, she overhears Duke being rejected by the poll workers. Apparently he’s at the wrong polling place; he pre-registered at his dad’s address before his parents separated. Thus begins Marva and Duke’s adventure, a day exemplifying Murphy’s Law: everything that can go wrong does. First, Duke’s car won’t start as he tries to head to the correct polling place. Marva offers to drive him. Skipping school and driving around with a strange boy all morning probably isn’t the best idea, especially since Marva is sort-of fighting with her boyfriend of two years, but hey, this is important. Despite racism and voter suppression and parents and missing cats and an angry boyfriend and a gig Duke can’t miss, Marva and Duke can’t deny the positive thing resulting from this crazy day: that they found each other.

THOUGHTS: Another gem from award-winning author Brandy Colbert, The Voting Booth is a super cute romance that still manages to highlight serious issues. A very timely book that would pair well with another 2020 publication – Running by Natalia Sylvester – this book would serve as a fantastic independent or supplemental read in a Social Studies class discussing the voting process in America. Told in alternating points of view between Duke and Marva, so it appeals to both male and female readers. Highly recommended for all high school collections.

Realistic Fiction           Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – Miss Meteor

Mejia, Tehlor Kay, and Anna-Marie McLemore. Miss Meteor. Harper Teen, 2020. 978-0-062-86991-3. $17.99. 392 p. Grades 9 and up.

Meteor, New Mexico is a cheesy tourist town known for three things: the regional cornhole tournament, the Miss Meteor Pageant, and, of course, the huge meteor that landed there fifty years ago. Everyone knows that’s why the town is named “Meteor,” but they don’t know Lita landed there with it. Lita lives her human life now in Meteor with Bruja Lupe, her “mom,” who may or may not have come from the same space rock. Being of Mexican descent and the daughter of the town witch does nothing to help Lita in the popularity department. That doesn’t stop her from fantasizing over and pretending to enter and win the Miss Meteor Pageant as a kid, her best friend Chicky playing along as her manager. Things don’t get better for her over the years, though. Chicky ends their friendship abruptly in middle school, and since then it seems as though Lita is turning back into the stardust from which she came; tiny patches of it are visible under her skin. Also of Mexican descent, flannel-and-combat-boot-wearing Chicky has harbored a secret and has had to deal with bullying for most of her life, Miss Meteor pageant legacy Kendra Kendall being her harshest and most frequent bully. When Lita decides to go for her dream of Miss Meteor because she’s running out of time and has nothing to lose, Chicky decides to resume her role as Lita’s manager. Kendra Kendall losing the crown everyone expects her to win to the weirdest girl in town would be fitting, so it’s worth it to Chicky to rekindle her friendship with Lita to make it happen. How long can Chicky continue to keep her secret from her friend though, since that’s why she ended their friendship in the first place? Will Lita even make it to the pageant, or will she turn to stardust before it even starts? Find out in this beautifully written poignant story of friendship and self-love.

THOUGHTS: Miss Meteor is adorable and imaginative, and Tehlor Kay Mejia is quickly becoming a must-read YA author for me, personally. This book is co-written with Anna-Marie McLemore, and each author writes one of the main characters’ point of view in alternating chapter format. Lita is particularly quirky and innocent (which makes sense, given she’s made of stardust), and I found myself smiling a lot while reading this book… and laughing. And I may have shed a tear or two. While there are several instances of harsh bullying including homophobia and transphobia, this book is heartwarming overall with a cast of extremely lovable and diverse characters. Chicky’s sisters are hilarious, and the girls themselves as well as their friends/love interests are of various sexual orientations including a trans character. Highly recommended addition for all high school collections.

Fantasy (Magical Realism)          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD